Who better to comment on President Obama’s recent decision to declare an end to the United States’ prolonged conflict in Iraq than General Wesley Clark? In his Big Think interview, the retired four star U.S. Army general and former Supreme Allied Commander Europe of NATO, says his biggest concern about the future of Iraq are the Iraqi people themselves and the United States’ lack of diplomatic direction in the region” “One of my original criticisms of the Bush Administration was they really never talked to Iraq’s neighbors, they thought they’d go in there and use force and, and solve just by the use of force—pretty naive view at the top level.”
Now that the war is winding down, however, Clark admits the ending “could have been a lot worse.” From a purely military perspective, the fact that the United States entered Iraq in 2003 and soundly defeated the Iraqi Army could be considered a victory, but when it comes to the future stability of the country that the United States now plans to leave behind, Clark is careful to parse his words. “We could have left and Iraq could have ended up like Somalia is today—with no government, no institutions at all, and warring factions and another two or three million Iraqis fleeing or dying or whatever. That didn’t happen,” he says. “It could have been that we would have left and the Iranians would have staged some kind of excuse to march in and subjugate most of Iraq. And we could have had a broader war. That hasn’t happened. Now both of those two outcomes are still conceptually… they’re possible. But I think we’ve avoided the worst.”
In Clark’s eyes, diplomacy seems to be the most difficult, and most crucial aspect of not only the war in Iraq but also the war in Afghanistan. “Afghanistan is really a theater for proxy war between India and Pakistan,” he says. “Pakistanis believe that Afghanistan is their, ‘strategic depth,’ against India, and India says, ‘Well if the Pakistanis get that strategic depth they will be even more intractable in dealing with issues like Kashmir and other issues that affect India.'” Americans may not realize it, says Clark, but since being betrayed by the United States by something called the Pressler Amendment, which cut off U.S. military assistance to the Pakistan in 1990, the Pakistanis have been deeply suspicious of America’s relationship with India. “Americans don’t even remember this Amendment, but it’s a huge deal in the minds of the Pakistanis. It’s a sign that even if Washington is your friend today, they could be against you tomorrow,” says Clark.
Also of little importance to many Americans today, but of possibly grave importance to Americans over the next decade, is China’s growing military capability, which Clark says are at the very least causing the upper echelons of the American armed forces to scratch their heads. As exemplified by the recent tit-for-tat over Zhan Qixiong, the Chinese fisherman who was detained by Japanese authorities after his boat collided with a Japanese coast guard vessel near a string of islands in the East China Sea, China’s emergence as an economic powerhouse is forcing the rest of the World to consider a future in which China controls the seas. Some concern over China’s growing naval presence—particularly those of their nuclear submarine programs—are warranted, says Clark, but others are not so alarming if you “put the shoe on the other foot” and consider the many ways in which for years America has exerted its military muscle off the shores of other countries.
Though Clark boasts an encyclopedic grasp of foreign affairs, what seems to concern him most is the current state of politics within the United States. Despite the fact that over the last few years it’s been proven that our country’s economy can be crippled by the bad decisions of relatively few, greedy business leaders, Clark believes our politicians are and will remain as relevant as ever. Anyone who feels that in light of technological revolutions like Google, politicians are less relevant than they were fifty years ago haven’t been around long enough to know, says Clark. “The telegraph, transcontinental railroads, the rise of the railroads, the rise of electric power, automobiles. America has always been a dynamic, rapidly changing society,” he says. Whether it’s learning how to use a Blackberry or learning how to “twit,” he is confident that politicians we’ll always be able to connect with their constituencies.
Clark says its a tough time for the Obama administration because until the Democrats can overcome the loss of eight million jobs and give people hope for the future, there’s going to be a lot of angry people in America. “How do we get value back in this economy?” asks Clark, “Well, I think at this time what we need to do is go after the easiest money available, that’s the $300 to $400 billion every year that we spend importing oil into the United States.” Politicians have been talking about energy independence for 30 years, he says, but Americans are still waiting. As a Co-Chairman of the ethanol lobbying group Growth Energy, one might expect Clark to extol the virtues of replacing gasoline with a corn-based alternative, but Clark actually advocates a “portfolio approach” to solving America’s addiction to oil, in which ethanol is only one of a range of clean energy solutions.
Aside from fighting for a future America that’s less dependent on foreign oil, Clark has also set a few personal goals for his civilian life. Upon retirement, three of his friends—a military office, a minister, and lawyer—sat down with him to decide what he was going to do with the rest of his life. Having seen the positive impact George Soros had made through his philanthropy at the Open Society Institute, Clark has decided he wants to do three things with the remainder of his life: make enough money to start giving some away, teach, and become a pro golfer. “You got to have goals,” he says, “I still like having those goals and maybe I’ll get them.”